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DARK SKY: FUCK THE GRID

Can London trio Dark Sky make the tricky transition to an album and live band shows? You bet they can...

Triangles have enjoyed a good innings in the last few years. Alt-J won the Mercury. And the Illuminati continued their insidious global rule via all sorts of paranoid triangular connections bouncing between 9/11, Def Jam rappers and a New World Order. 

Yet rather than obsessively searching for furtive triumvirate motifs in Jay Z’s sock draw we found a deliciously inventive triangle in East London. Dark Sky are a trio of young men with a verve for constantly reformatting their delicate dance music to seductive effect.

It wasn’t hard to spot this triptych at our meeting point in the five star splendour of the South Place Hotel. Slap-bang in the square mile of financiers, Dark Sky’s bleary raver chic was at happy odds with the scowling suited city boys. Matt Benyayer, Thomas Edwards and Carlo Anderson had been DJing in Cambridge the night before and stopped off on the way to studio rehearsals to give us their first interview ahead of their startling debut album ‘Imagin’.

Amidst their tired ranks we quickly discovered quite a network of nerves around the new album.

“I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night wondering: ‘Is this good enough?’” admits Matt Benyayer, the tallest, and seemingly most tired member of the three. “Then I have to get up and go listen to it all in the middle of the night to check that it is indeed alright.”
Their worries tumble out further. Benyayer and Carlo Anderson engage in a depressing whirlpool of fears.  “I personally, at points felt we’d taken way too long making it,” frowns Anderson.

“Yeah me too,” adds Benyayer. “I felt we’d dropped off the radar for too long. Because of the focus we gave the album it was easy to think that no-one cared about us anymore. Like, no gigs were coming in. So you start thinking: ‘What is the point of it all? We’ve no money in the bank, no-one cares!’ It’s way too easy to feel those thoughts too much.”

PERPETUAL MOTION
Dark Sky need not fret. Such depth of focus has borne sweet musical fruit. ‘Imagin’ is 46 minutes of deft, inventive and refreshing bass music. Its 10 tracks have futuristic ebb and flow that only needed to be heard twice before we were on the phone chatting hotel rendezvous. It is conjured from detailed and emotive layers that progress through a carefully crafted series of truly addictive drops. They have vocal collaborations from dBridge and Ninja Tune’s Grey Reverend. Perhaps most significant though, is their work with a female singer called Cornelia who has previously worked with Portico Quartet. She steals the show with three songs and further deepens Dark Sky’s sonic range.

Recorded mainly in Benyayer’s studio/bedroom (the cheekily named ‘Vibe Room’) the Dark Sky internal production process could be forgiven for thinking it is actually a media marketing project, as Benyayer details. “So you’d start an idea alone on your computer then pitch it to the other two on an email. Then if they are feeling it, we’d take it further. You can get more creative that way without hitting earlier barriers. From a time management point of view it's more efficient, not only does the track progress faster but then when you do get the others involved, then you get it finished a lot quicker.”

Whatever the process, it clearly works. And their current label patrons Modeselektor couldn’t agree more, having signed the album in question to their Monkeytown label two years ago. This was after they’d already released a couple of bangers (‘Radius’ and ‘Myriam’) on their 12” label 50Weapons.

Refreshingly, before that the Germans were simply fans. “Modeselektor had been playing our songs on tour with SBTRKT,” explains Tom Edwards, the most softly-spoken member. “SBTRKT mentioned he knew us and introduced us to Modeselektor on email. And that was that.”

Being tucked under the warm and protecting wing of Modeselektor has allowed a patient two-year recording process to unfurl. Previous to this Dark Sky had been steadily forging their understated name through very considered EPs on Black Acre, Blunted Robots, Pictures Music and more recently on Tectonic, Naked Naked and Mister Saturday Night. This varied field of imprints has meant that their sound has never remained still. Dark Sky openly declare that they never want to stay stylistically static. The dynamic as a trio and their individualistic production processes mean that this is extremely unlikely anyway. 

UNCONVENTIONAL FLAVOURS
So what were the words the three lads were using to describe their aims when planning the album? Anderson, ever talkative, immediately pipes up. “The word ‘journey’ was important for us. We wanted it to transport the listener.”
Benyayer quickly adds: “Another word was ‘dynamics’. We wanted a peak point, but revolving around a centre point that ….” (he tails off waving his hands around searching for a word that never appears before changing tack) “also we knew our live performance would be important, we wanted tracks that would translate well to our gigs.”

These key tenets certainly have been observed. ‘Imagin’ really does traverse a strong narrative. It’s an album that retains their prime-time dancefloor hunger but tempers it with a bevvy of surprises and more subtle details only possible on an album. There is a huge amount of space built around their chunky bassline breaks. Equally there are unconventional flavours borne from the trio’s varied record collections. From the Latin barrage on ‘Voyages’ the first album peak, to the Arabic wonk that possesses ‘Manuka’ — these are incongruous style details that bizarrely flow when in other hands they wouldn’t.

Such sharp flavours are best explained by two factors. Dark Sky’s proud radio show on NTS Radio where they always strive to bring fresh music to their intimate sonic triangle. And secondly Benyayer’s distinct archaeological approach to filtering music, as he explains: “In the last few years I’ve just been trying to find music that never got the time of day, got overlooked or has been repressed — lost music basically. I just archive all this stuff, looking for obscure sounds that inspire writing. I categorise these sounds, take notes, take time codes so I can come back to it later. I’ll spend days doing that. I do love the archiving process and now with the internet it is easier than ever”.

Getting lost in the nether regions of Polish jazz however, is a privilege that has recently vanished. Dark Sky need to learn how to play their album, and judging by the strength of ‘Imagin’ they need to do it quickly. And herein lies more twitching worry for the boys. Rehearsing three days a week, Dark Sky are frantically trying to figure out how to serve up a truly live experience that matches the quality of the album.

“All the anxiety comes back!” confides Benyayer. “It’s really kicking in now preparing the live show. I’ve drummed a bit in bands but not real ones.” “There’s a expectation with electronic music that’s quite high,” Anderson frowns again. “There’s an expectation that your show is going to sound exactly like the EPs.” A silence hangs before he continues flatly. “None of us really have any live experience. I have only played one gig ever. At Koko. That’s the sum total of me playing live.” he shrugs. “It feels like our live show is a big risk. Who knows until we have tried it?”

HUMANITY
But, it is certainly not uncharted territory. In fact Dark Sky have propelled themselves into rude company. They are very much part of a rich musical canon, a generation of producers fronted by the likes of Caribou, Darkstar, Mount Kimbie, Matthew Dear, James Holden, Bonobo and James Blake who have all faced the same grave problem.

All these talents invaded our lives through dazzling studio work, generating a passionate audience via taut digital programming but all who were forced to fearfully get a live show together to service their fans' expectations. This working backwards, to learn to play already published music against the currents of musicianship is a well-entrenched hurdle.

And whilst splitting a small DJ fee three ways must have been fairly galling for the last four years, suddenly having six hands and a touring singer pushes Dark Sky’s growth prospects even further into our thoughts. “Having three pairs of hands is invaluable,” agrees Benyayer. “There’s hardly any backing tracks. Tom is playing bass, I’m playing drums and Carlo is doing top lines. We also can push ourselves into uncomfortable areas and it's here when we find interesting new developments.

And the technical limitations can really help push you to new areas. In the last year I’ve been moving away from quantisation. Fuck the grid! Just play it! Fuck the grid! It will sound so much better; it’s an extension of you in the music. You haven’t just pressed a button to generate it, by quantising you can lose the whole character of the sound.”

This maturity is rife across an album that takes a bold step on from so many promising EPs. The stabilisers of digital grids are gone. Anderson broadens the point when he utters: “It took us a while to get our head around the idea that this is a proper job!”

We talk about how hard it is to move into a mind-set where crate-digging for records or perfecting a drum loop for six hours can legitimately start to feel like a real job. “I used to get frustrated if I didn't make a tune EVERY DAY,” Benyayer continues. “But now Monday is all about listening. And whilst it doesn't feel like I’ve achieved anything then, it definitely goes a long way to making something strong on Wednesday that I’ll keep. Putting in that ground work is really vital.”

This final discussion rams home that Dark Sky are no longer three college kids fucking about with garage beats. They are a considered unit with a respect for the past and all six eyes on the future of their own catalogue. The feelings of being frauds have been vanquished. “When your music is out there…” rounds off Benyayer “…you are going to have to live with it. So you may as well make it good, make it different and contribute to making something fresh — otherwise what is the point?” 

 

FUTURE LOOKS BRIGHT
Four essential Dark Sky cuts:

'Something to Lose' (Black Acre, 2010)
Long before the current trend for hardcore and jungle beats and riffs, Dark Sky were digging back into their Suburban Base and Ibiza Records bargain bins for inspiration. This euphoric blast of hardcore brilliance, all Amen breakage and key stabs, was a welcome bolt from the blue.

xx 'Crystalised (Dark Sky Remix)' (Young Turks, 2010)
Hard to improve on perfection but this bumpin' two-step take by the trio almost achieves it.

'5AM' (Mister Saturday Night, 2013)
The vinyl-only label served up this deliciously emotive, darkest-hour-before-the-dawn piece of electro two-step, demonstrating Dark Sky's gift for atmosphere.

Breach & Dark Sky 'The Click' (Naked Naked, 2013)
Nasty screw-face night-house, The triptych's bass knowledge combined with the 4/4 knowhow of Ben Westbeech to deadly effect.

WORDS: Mathew Bennet

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